No More Magical Realism: Juan Gabriel Vásquez and the New Latin American Lit

How Juan Gabriel Vásquez dug deep into Colombia's years of drug-fueled bloodshed and emerged with a modern classic of Latin American literature.

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There was a time not so long ago when Latin American literature, as it appeared on college syllabi, in critical discourse, and in writers' own spheres of influence, summoned up the whimsical and fantastical.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who famously aimed to set about "destroying the line of demarcation that separates what seems real from what seems fantastic," may not have invented magical realism, but he introduced it to the English-speaking world with a 1967 masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Captivating readers of three dozen languages with tales of the utopic banana town Macondo, Marquez borrowed liberally from the musings of Jorge Luis Borges and pioneers Alejo Carpentier and Miguel Asturias. He set in motion a "Latin American Boom" that flourished well into the 1970s. He cast a surrealist influence on everyone from Salman Rushdie to Toni Morrison, whose novel Beloved bore the echoes of Marquez's haunted relationship with ghosts and memories.

But some time after Augusto Roa Bastos's Yo, el supremo in 1974, the Boom generation simmered, its experimental tendencies faded, and readers wondered whether magical realism could adequately address a new generation of political strife and social realities.

"Even the genre's staunchest defenders agree that it has lost its magic," Newsweek proclaimed in 2002, by which point the surviving pioneers of the style had begun to distance themselves. "It's become kitschy, a commodity," the scholar Ilan Stavans told the magazine.

Constrained by the fruits of its literary currency, critics wondered: what next? Newsweek pointed to a 1996 short story collection called "McOndo," which became a movement of its own. Others, to the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño, whose acclaimed, posthumous epic 2666 delves deep into a series of unsolved Mexican homicides and landed an international audience that had eluded most of his contemporaries.

The latest is a slew of Latin American neo-realists, writers who've fled Marquez's mystical landscapes and, like Bolaño, landed in the hard-boiled, decidedly unmagical realm of the crime novel. Jorge Volpi, writing recently for The Nation, identified a new crop of writers in Mexico and Colombia confronting drug violence by "giv[ing] a literary patina to the language of the narcos" and, in so doing, pioneering what Volpi has termed the narconovelas:

During the last ten years, narconovelas have flooded the bookstores, sparking interest among Mexican readers and foreign critics in a new strain of Latin American exoticism and displacing magic realism as the region’s characteristic genre. In these books, Mexico is portrayed as a violent, uncontrollable and fantastic world in contrast to the West, which consumes drugs without suffering or being scarred by the violence of the trade.

Volpi points to a long and varied list of writers—Sergio González Rodríguez, Mario González Suárez, Heriberto Yépez, and others—who've dared to question whether Latin America has much magic to offer.

And then there is the Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez, whose astounding new novel based on the Colombian drug wars, The Sound of Things Falling, has landed him as arguably the finest of this new crop of Latin American writers.

The reception for the book, which was released this month, began as a steady murmur. It has risen to a chorus of praise that eclipses Vásquez's previous works, The Informers and The Secret History of Costaguana. According to Jynne Martin, a publicity director for Riverhead, The Sound of Things Falling is already in its third printing and has become an extended New York Times bestseller. Critics, meanwhile, have been heaping praise on the book. Some, noting the narrative's bracing realism, wonder if Vásquez has set a new tone for Latin-American literature, one that leaves magical realism and its cultural trappings neatly behind.

"In Vásquez, the writing is really nitty-gritty realism. There's nothing fantastical," Edmund White, whose raving New York Times review observes that the novelist "is nothing like Gabriel García Márquez," told The Atlantic Wire. "Vásquez is very caught up in his national history. He's not interested in having a kind of Disney version of it." White compared the novel to the work of the late Uruguayan novelist Juan Carlos Onetti.

In a review for NPR, Marcela Valdes called it "the most engrossing Latin American novel I've read since Roberto Bolaño's 2666." In a phone conversation, she compared Vásquez's treatment of the drug trade—which he approaches indirectly, from a starkly emotional perspective—to Bolaño's depiction of serial homicides in Mexico. "It's no Breaking Bad," she said. "It's a much more rare look at how this drug has changed society."

Meanwhile, the novel has charmed the likes of Jonathan Franzen and E. L. Doctorow. Descriptions vary, but the question remains on the lips of the literary sphere: is Vásquez the future of Latin American literature?

From Macondo to Bogotá

The Sound of Things Falling is—yes—a crime novel. But to call it that is reductive, insufficient to capture how it approaches crime through a personal, familial, and generational lens. Like Marquez, Vásquez is obsessed with the ghosts of memory. But his ghosts aren't magical. They're psychological.

And they've haunted its author as much as his characters.

The novel begins, for instance, with a hippopotamus. It's a dead hippo, an escaped male "the color of black pearls," the same one whose posthumous photo appeared in a magazine in 2009 and threw Vásquez into the narrative that weaves his novel together.

Indeed, Things Falling is a story about the long reach of memory—what its narrator terms "the damaging exercise of remembering"—and the material signifiers that can launch one into the past: a cassette tape, a letter, a scar. Why not a hippo?

"It was 2009 and I opened up this magazine and I found the photo of a dead hippo, with which the novel begins," Vásquez explained when reached at his home in Bogotá. "That image did something very strange for me. For Colombians of my generation, one of the strongest images we have is the photograph of [billionaire drug lord] Pablo Escobar shot dead on the rooftops of Medellín. That hippo, in a very strange way, resembled Escobar."

And so it was a hippo—a slain one, helpless and enormous—that drove Vásquez to investigate the long, violent legacy of the Colombia of his adolescence, the drug lords and the murders and the bombings and the political intimidation. Not a magical creature, but a real animal like the ones famously held in Escobar's zoo. Carried out by members of Colonel Hugo Martinez's Search Bloc at the end of 1993, Escobar's death signified the conclusion of that era—a grisly decade that left lasting scars on the generation that came of age during it.

"I started remembering what it was like to live with this constant fear," Vásquez said. "I started thinking about those years in a very personal way, [and] I started remembering those years as I had never remembered them before. I realized that the novel was about the emotional or moral side of something we already knew quite well in its public side."

The gripping, noirish story of Antonio, a young law professor who contends with the psychological trauma of a bullet that was meant for another, the novel's plot is too rich, too carefully woven and cleverly paced, to reveal in any great depth. It's about the drug trade, but its characters aren't really users. It's about the 1970s and '80s, but it's mostly narrated in the '90s. It's consumed by the miracle of flight, but remains grimly aware of its dangers. Mostly, it questions what it means to grow up in a landscape ravaged by terrorism. Its characters trade stories about where they were at the time of different attacks, about avoiding public places and living "with the possibility that people close to us might be killed."

"If you listen to an explosion, people from my generation know if it's a bomb or if it's something else," the writer recalled. "We got used to walking around with a coin in our pockets so in case of a bombing we could go to the nearest pay phone and call home."

It's a story likely to resonate with Vásquez's readers whether or not they are from Colombia. Having left Bogotá in 1996, the writer discussed working on the novel in Spain only several years after the Madrid train bombings of 2004. Then, after 17 years in Europe, he returned to Bogotá, driven by the urge to live again in the country he has written obsessively about—and the hope that his twin daughters might experience Colombian life.

"The interesting thing is how universal these emotions are," he said. "There are people who have gone through times of terrorism, whether it's the IRA in Ireland or the Shining Path in Peru or 9/11 attacks in New York. So everybody knows at this time and place in history, the Western world in the 21st century, what it's like to live with fear, with this kind of anxiety, this kind of unpredictable violence. And I think that has in a way shaped the reception of the book."

Like those before him, Vásquez has written a story of Latin America for the rest of the world to savor, but his is coated in fear and terror rather than mysticism.

Tragedy, Not Magic

"I don't think magical realism is a major reference for writers in Latin America anymore," Marcela Valdesm, the NPR critic, told me. "I think people continue to use it as a frame of reference because we still haven't seen a novel in the United States that has had the same impact as Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude."

But she cautioned against generalizing all Latin-American literature together. "There's just too much variety with what's going on, and the region is so enormous."

Vásquez, though, noted the spiked interest in the region's literary output. "It does feel like something is happening," he said. "After what we call the Latin American 'boom generation'—involving Márquez and Carlos Fuentes and all those people who made us discover the people who came before—I don't think American readers have been so attentive to what's going on in Latin American literature as [they are to] what is going on today."

He admitted that his novels diverge sharply from the flourishes that have dominated the Latin-American tradition for so long. Indeed, he has publicly proclaimed this agenda, as Edmund White quotes in his review:

In my novel there is a disproportionate reality, but that which is disproportionate in it is the violence and cruelty of our history and of our politics. Let me be clear about this. . . . I can say that reading One Hundred Years of Solitude . . . in my adolescence may have contributed much to my literary calling, but I believe that magic realism is the least interesting part of this novel. I suggest reading ‘One Hundred Years’ as a distorted version of Colombian history.

But his is not a conscious rebellion. It's the only way he knows how to write about his country.

"My work is a reaction to the idea of magical realism as the only way to discover Latin America," he explained to the Wire. "It's something that still many readers believe. And this is obviously something I strongly oppose. I don't feel Latin America is a magical continent. I feel Latin American history is, if anything, tragedy."

"It's the tragedy of recent Latin American history," he said, "that I'm trying to tell in my novel."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.